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Draft environment notification gives big industries 'free hand', withdraw it: NAPM

Counterview Desk 
India’s top civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) has demanded that the Government of India should immediately withdrawal the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification  2020, pointing out that the only aim of the notification is to “further weaken environmental regulations”.
Pointing out that the draft notification has been used in the name of ‘Ease of Doing Business’, which is “a sure doom for environment”, an NAPM statement said, the move is not only “anti-people, anti-nature and against the spirit of the Constitution”, but strangely comes amidst the lockdown regime, when the country is coping with a pandemic.

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Even as the country is reeling under the impacts of the lockdown and coping with a pandemic, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has made a time-bound call for comments on the draft EIA Notification 2020, published on its website on 12th March, 2020. NAPM condemns this ill-timed move aimed at complete dilution of existing provisions that are meant to protect the interests of the environment and project affected people.
The EIA notification, first issued in 1994, under the Environment Protection Act 1986, is a critical mechanism which regulates clearances granted to all kinds of development projects and economic activities in the country.
It is one of the environmental decision-making processes that makes it mandatory for project developers and companies to not just study the socio-economic, ecological and other impacts of a proposed project but also place them in front of the affected communities for their opinions and objections, i.e free, fair and informed consent.
However, this notification has been amended several times in the last two decades in favour of ‘easing the norms’ for business. The latest draft continues to move in the direction of rendering the EIA process anti-people, anti-nature and against the spirit of the Constitution. There are various problematic dilutions and changes in the draft which include:
  • allowing post facto approvals – i.e. starting construction without clearance in certain conditions (which is currently a violation), this reduces clearance as mere formality
  • expanding the list of projects exempted from public consultation, including modernization of irrigation projects, all building, construction and area development projects, inland waterways, expansion or widening of national highways, all projects concerning national defence and security or involving “other strategic considerations” as determined by the central government, all linear projects like pipelines in border areas and all the off-shore projects located beyond the 12 nautical miles. 
  • extending the validity period of clearance granted to mining project from 30 to 50 years 
  • absence of a post clearance compliance and monitoring strategy. Decreasing the monitoring requirement from ‘6-month monitoring’ requirement of the projects cleared to ‘annual monitoring’, leading to further reduction in accountability. 
The proposed changes make our country more vulnerable to unprecedented environmental disasters by decreasing public participation and giving free reign to polluting industries.
Under the guise of increasing the ‘ease of doing business’, the mockery being made of existing environmental regulations threatens the ecology of the nation and makes the people more vulnerable to unforeseen environmental disasters. Past experiences have shown that the economic claims which generally accompany such devastating changes in the environmental policy almost never benefit the affected communities.
The communities directly affected by such crippling changes to the environmental policy are the ones whose lives are closely intertwined with nature: the adivasis and other forest dependent people, pastoralists, farmers, fishworkers, and women. These are the same communities who have historically been a victim of the growth at any cost model of development.
It is equally bizarre that while our planet is poised at the brink of a catastrophic climate crisis, the MoEFCC is pushing such regressive environmental policy. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has also been linked to unrelenting destruction of natural ecosystems and globalisation, has given us a wakeup call to mend our relationship with the earth.
The Government of India must heed this alarm bell and strengthen environmental protection laws and governance in India, in the interest of the ecology, the economy and the millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are deeply linked to natural resources. 
Lockdown restrictions make it impossible to disseminate information about the notification to the directly affected communities
This notification was published just as India reported its first death due to corona virus. The timing of this notification and the fact that the deadline of 60 days has not been removed is telling of the apathy of MoEFCC.
The restrictions imposed by the lockdown make it impossible to disseminate information about the notification to the communities which will be directly affected by the new amendments. Asking the people for objections and suggestions regarding such a crucial notification at this time of a public health, social and economic crisis is a complete travesty of justice and democracy.
We strongly demand:
  1. That the government immediately withdraw this draft notification immediately.
  2. That the government issue a revised notification only after giving due consideration to the environmental concerns that have been raised by various environmental groups and communities. 
  3. That such revised notification, if issued, be issued only after the country has recovered from the lockdown and the pandemic and that an appropriate amount of time be given to the people for objections and suggestions. The procedure in the Pre-Legislative Consultative Policy of 2014 needs to be fully complied with. 
  4. That the government should create a robust environmental regulatory and governance regime that makes project proponents accountable and keeps the affected communities and ecological concerns at the centre of the EIA and environmental decision-making process. 
  5. That the central government consider a rethink of its economic policies in the light of global climate crisis and the vulnerability of natural ecosystems, focusing on non-polluting and local livelihood generating small and medium businesses. 
NAPM strongly believes that the blatant sidelining of the public consultation process proposed by this draft, while virtually giving big industries a free hand over our land and natural resources, unencumbered by the need to get environmental clearances or to consult the affected communities, surely spells doom for protection of the environment in our country. This must be opposed by all.

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